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Jail Time Records: The Record Label Made in a Cameroonian Prison

Jail Time Records is the record label giving inmates a voice

When one thinks of a record label, the first thing that often comes to mind is a somewhat fancy office building in the middle of a cosmopolitan city, like Los Angeles, London, or New York. But you have likely never heard of Jail Time Records, the one-of-a-kind multimedia record label, situated right in the heart of the Central Prison of Douala in Cameroon— offering a powerful voice and creative enrichment to artists undergoing incarceration or that have previously undergone it.  

The unconventional record label is an emblem of light for current and ex-detainees. A result of a music project in Cameroon inside the Central Prison of Douala, the non-profit music label came to life in 2018. The project started off as volunteer work in Cameroon with the Italian NGO Centro Orientamento Educativo (COE) giving painting workshops inside the Central prison of Douala by artist, filmmaker, and teacher Dione Roach. She organized a series of dance and music events within the prison which led her to discover the immense talent that lies inside the prison walls. 

From there, Roach started a project to produce an album of the rap collective La meute des penseurs and was fortunate to get funding from the COE, which resulted in the creation of a studio within the prison. The one-of-a-kind initiative is slowly changing narratives around prison life and what that entails for the detainees.  Essentially, Roach has created a light at the end of the tunnel, changing the ways in which prisoners view the trajectory of their life by nourishing their talents and offering a different perspective on life altogether. 

In November 2018, Roach and music producer, artist, and inmate Steve Happi also known as Vidou H became the co-founder of the project marking him as the first incarcerated producer to be in charge of the studio. Happi went on to manage the studio and recorded hundreds of tracks ranging from hip-hop, Afrobeat, traditional, gospel, and more. Happi has been released from prison since December 2019 but he still pays visits to the in-prison studio to record. 

Approximately two-years after Happi’s release, Jail Time Records built its first studio outside the prison. “The new studio is critical for the reintegration of ex-convicted artists into the community. The goal is that rappers, producers, former prison artists and label affiliates can continue to cultivate their musical talent once they leave and, above all, keep away from what brought them to jail,” states the record label’s website. 

Jail Time Records went on to release  its first album in 2022 titled Jail Time, Vol. 1 which features 24 tracks ranging from a diverse arena of sounds, including drill, afro-beats, heavy-hitting rap, trap, afro-trap, reggae, and afro-house. The project takes you through a spectrum of emotions, and experiences surrounding the life of the incarcerated presented through the many different languages and dialects found in Cameroon: English, French, Fulah, Duala, Buman, Bassa, and Sango. What makes the album ever more personal and emblematic in its nature are the occasional skits situated between the tracks composed of personal recordings of conversation between the incarcerated and their loved ones, testimonies of the musicians, and sounds from within the prison. Giving the listener just a glimpse into the life of the incarcerated. 

One of the tracks titled Sa Ngando which means Dance in Douala language by artist Empereur was recorded and shot inside the walls of the death sentence quarter of Douala’s Central Prison. “The song is an ode to dance and a call to the water spirits to come and join in,” the record label states in an Instagram post. 

Jail Time Records is another example of how music acts as a beacon of hope for many. For the incarcerated artists tied to the label, music is a means of freedom, foreshadowing to a life beyond the confines of cell walls. Reigniting the spirits of detainees and ex-detainees, the record label, in this case music, is enabling said artists to overcome feelings of hopelessness, providing them some form of solace. 


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